I signed up for an elephant tour a couple of hours outside of Chaing Mai. I was instructed to meet at a nearby hotel that morning for a pickup because I was staying at an Airbnb. Apple maps did me wrong, and I wandered through an alleyway, working up a sweat in the 92 °F heat (with 42% humidity). I pulled my hair back, turned around, and eventually found the hotel.
As I waited for my ride, I reflected on the prices in Thailand. Things seemed to be priced inconsistently. For example, I was paying $20 a night for a studio apartment on Airbnb, but the elephant tour cost $47. An ATV tour that I was signed up for the following day cost $114. Yet, I could buy a small plate of delicious cooked noodles on the street for $0.60. Coffee drinks seemed to universally be overpriced, mostly costing $2.50-$3.00.
Finally, the van arrived to take me to the elephant sanctuary. The other tourists were Chinese and German, so I couldn’t understand anything they were saying. The driver, the guy behind me, and one kid next to me coughed incessantly. I tried my best to hide away from them because I did not want to get sick in Thailand.
I chose this elephant sanctuary because they don’t offer rides. My understanding is that the places that offer rides treat the animals poorly. This sanctuary does its best to treat the animals well while also allowing visitors to get up close and personal with the elephants.
On the drive there, the driver told us about the elephants in Thailand.
- There are 4,000 domestic elephants and 3,000 wild elephants.
- In the early 2000s, there were companies that had elephants playing basketball and football, but they’ve stopped that now.
- Elephants eat every half hour to every hour, so they require a lot of food.
- Asian elephants are smaller than the African elephants.
We arrived at the sanctuary, and it was organized chaos. Tourists piled out of several vans and were told which group they’d be apart of. We were all instructed to change our clothes into the scrubs with bright prints that they provided. They said it helped the elephants remain calm if everyone wore the same outfit and one they were used to seeing.
After putting on the unflattering clothing, my group of 20 or so headed to the first group of elephants. There were tourists from China, Australia, Israel, Spain, and Germany, but no other Americans.
The tour guide demonstrated how to feed the elephants. We were each given a small cloth bag that hung on our shoulders and contained thick bamboo sticks. There were a few elephants, and the guide showed us how to hold the small stick out with our hand so the elephant could grab it with his trunk.
I was a little nervous because elephants are enormous animals, and once they see the bamboo, they come over pretty quickly. I put my hand out with the stick, and an elephant grabbed it with its trunk and chomped loudly while looking for more. We had many sticks in our pouches, so I gathered with about five people as we took turns feeding one of the elephants. It was so much fun to be that close! I patted the side of the elephant and felt the rough, hairy skin. I was still nervous about getting too close.
Once our sticks were gone, we walked over to a cart with long branches of bamboo. We stuck each piece out and let the elephant grab it, take off the leafy parts, and drop the parts they didn’t like.
After that, we walked over to a section with tables. We mashed together wet food into balls and were able to stick it directly on the tongue. The elephants seemed to really like those. Once those were gone, the elephants got into a small pond, laid down, and let us brush them and pour water over them. Elephants don’t sweat, so they need a reprieve from the Thai heat. We all got into the pond with them and covered the elephants with water as they relaxed.
I thoroughly enjoyed feeding and bathing the elephants. They are gentle giants who have sweet souls. It was time to say goodbye to our new friends and change out of our uniforms. Once dressed again, we met in an outdoor covered patio for some fruit refreshments.
I sat next to two young couples – one from Spain and one from Israel. The couple from Spain was beautiful and looked like they were out of a magazine. The woman had lots of makeup and fake eyelashes, which looked out of place at the elephant sanctuary.
I talked with the couple from Israel for a little bit – Reny and Mark. When I said I was from the U.S., Reny pointed out that our presidents were good friends, and she was glad the U.S. is supportive of Israel. I asked her what it was like living in Israel and told her that I have a friend who has family from Israel, but she grew up in the U.S. She recently moved to Israel a couple of years ago. Reny said, “Yes, a lot of people have a love-hate relationship with Israel. They leave and come back.”
Reny described life as being difficult in Israel at times because it can be violent, and sometimes they have terrorist attacks. The green line is where Palestinians and Jews live because they both believe it is their land. Reny lives in a small city near the green line between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. I told her my friend lived in Tel Aviv, and while rolling her eyes, she said, “It’s the trendiest and hippest city there.”
Reny and I talked about the oil and gas in the area. She said, “We believe the U.S. doesn’t like it when it’s loud in the Middle East because gas prices go up. When it’s quiet, gas is cheap.” Reny was upset at their recent hike in electricity costs, which increased by 10%.
I was really enjoying getting to know Reny better. We talked about travels and hiking, and she told me about a hiking trail in Israel that goes from the north to the south and takes two months to hike. We couldn’t finish our conversation because we were all called to get on to our busses, and she was on a different bus.
It was a good day. I was able to meet elephants and meet new people. One of the nice things about traveling solo is that people are more willing to talk to me because I’m not already involved in a conversation with the person I came with. I loved that I was meeting people from all over the world. Even though I was in Thailand, I was learning about countries like Taiwan and Israel from fellow travelers.
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